Ethiopian rebels said German tourists they seized last week were safe and blamed the government for the incident in which five Europeans were also killed on the slopes of a famed volcano.
Addis Ababa had blamed the region’s worst attack on tourists in years on gunmen armed by arch-foe Eritrea but a rebel group claiming to fight for the Afar region and its people said the bloodshed occurred when government soldiers attacked one of its patrols.
The rebel Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) also said its fighters had killed 16 Ethiopian troops, and wounded or captured others, in a statement received Monday.
“Those German nationals who were taken together with the Ethiopian soldiers are safe and (in) good health,” ARDUF said.
The German foreign ministry has said two of its nationals are missing after gunmen attacked a group of tourists in Ethiopia’s remote Afar region last week, but the rebels did not specify how many people it was holding.
At least five people were killed in the fighting: two Germans, two Hungarians and one Austrian. Ethiopia says the rebels attacked the tourist convoy, but the ARDUF said fighting broke out when Ethiopian troops fired on one of its patrols.
“Our forces killed 16 Ethiopian soldiers and wounded a dozen of them in a battle when the Ethiopian forces opened fire,” ARDUF added in the statement dated January 21 and posted on several opposition websites.
“We regret the death of those innocent civilians. ARDUF would like to convey its sincere condolence and sympathy to the families and relatives of dead peaceful tourists,” the statement read.
Ethiopia has made no mention of losing any of its troops in the attack, which took place near the famed Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia’s sparsely populated Danakil desert, close to the tense border with Eritrea.
The area, which boasts spectacular moon-like landscapes and is famed to be the hottest place on earth, is popular among adventure travellers.
The rebels also warned Ethiopia “not to engage in another adventure that can endanger the lives” of the hostages.
“We can ensure that their peaceful release will be granted through peaceful negotiation” with Afar elders, ARDUF added.
Addis Ababa has said the Germans have been taken to neighbouring Eritrea, which it accuses of sponsoring the attack, claims dismissed by arch-rival Asmara as “ludicrous” and which the rebels also said was a lie.
“We assert that the government of Eritrea has nothing to do with incident,” the rebels said, adding that claims Eritrea was arming and training the rebels were “baseless and unfounded.”
In Berlin foreign ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said the German government was aware of ARDUF’s claim to be holding two German nationals but was unable to confirm it.
“It’s a very complicated matter for us,” Peschke admitted at a regular press briefing, adding that the German embassy in Addis Ababa and a ministry crisis cell were working on it and hoped for more clarification soon.
He said six Germans who escaped the clash had returned home.
Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia and won independence in 1993 after a 30-year struggle.
The two Horn of Africa neighbours fought a devastating 1998-2000 border war which claimed at least 70,000 lives and their dispute remains unresolved, with Ethiopian soldiers on land ruled by international courts to belong to Eritrea.
ARDUF has been fighting a low-level insurgency in the remote region to end what it says is “political marginalisation and economic deprivation” by Addis Ababa.
In 2007, ARDUF rebels seized five European tourists and eight Ethiopians. The Europeans were released after 12 days to the Eritrean government, while the Ethiopians were freed almost two months later.